One of my nephews joined a very small non-denominational Christian church on Long Island. While the number of people who attend in person is about two dozen, their on-line following is in the thousands. One of the sermons I heard the leader preach used the Bible to build the case that there is no need for me to care about or address what is happening in our society and world. Indeed, he said, I simply need to care about my own individual salvation. And that salvation would be found between me and God alone.
The clarity and confidence in which he spoke was startling. As he ran through a litany of injustices and tensions in the community, he negated any call to action. They will have their own way to salvation. I will have mine.
Our Catholic faith directly challenges and contradicts this detached understanding of our role in the world. Jesus teaches, and our Church echoes, the core need to see the other—to help the other—to know the other. To live compassion.
The word compassion is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, which together mean "to suffer with." In his book Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, Henri Nouwen suggests that the mystery of God’s love is not that our pain is taken away, but that God first wants to share that pain with us. God chooses to be with us, willing to enter into our problems, confusions, and questions. We, in turn, are asked to do the same.
Compassion asks us to go where it hurts and let go of power. We’re called to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion dares us to cry out with those in misery, and may challenge us to sacrifice personal freedom or even personal safety, in love.
This is not a faith of isolation. This is a faith of radical relationship. It challenges us to create community that builds faith, hope and love “on earth as it is in heaven.”
This is a faith that places a primacy on the “common good.” Pope John XXIII states, “The common good embraces the sum total of all those conditions of social life which enable individuals, families, and organizations to achieve complete and effective fulfillment.” (Mater et Magistra, 1961 #74) Indeed, it is our responsibility as Catholic Christians to engage in the public arena to work for the common good.
It is imperative that no one...indulge in a merely individualistic morality. The best way to fulfill one's obligations of justice and love is to contribute to the common good… and also to promote and help public and private organizations devoted to bettering the conditions of life. (Gaudium et Spes, 1965 #30)
This is our faith. We know this. Yet, we are challenged to examine our hearts and actions: Who are we ignoring? What are we staying silent about? Where are we falling short? Let us commit to a life of prayer—opening our hearts, minds and arms to those most in need. Let us find courage in the Spirit to speak and act boldly about the injustices of our time, and work to create a world of justice and peace.